WASHINGTON — As House Democrats bear down on President Donald Trump with an impeachment inquiry, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin has used his insider status in the closed-door process to step up as one of his most outspoken defenders.
Zeldin (R-Shirley) has gone to every deposition and interview as a member of one of the three House committees conducting the inquiry, which began a month ago, and he never misses a chance to slam the Democrats and their methods to reporters afterward.
“This impeachment inquiry has produced NOTHING to impeach POTUS for (I've been inside every depo thus far). While Dems run from the MANY gross flaws of how this circus is run, I welcome a debate on just how massively screwed up their clown show is on the SUBSTANCE,” Zeldin posted Thursday, winning a retweet from Trump.
The congressman blasted that tweet out just days after Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, said in his opening statement that Trump demanded that Ukraine open an investigation into his Democratic opponents before he would release U.S. military aid.
Democrats call that testimony damaging and serious, contradicting Trump’s claim that there was no quid pro quo in the July 25 phone call he had with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked for a “favor” — investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election.
Zeldin, 39, a lawyer, veteran and third-term congressman, has gone all in on Trump, becoming a stronger backer since he endorsed him in May 2016. Trump won big in Zeldin’s Suffolk County district in 2016, and Zeldin has twice won reelection.
Three years ago, Zeldin worried about being too closely tied to Trump, but now he acts and sounds more like the president as his voting has shifted to the right and he more often keeps company with conservative House Freedom Caucus members.
Zeldin roasts Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the impeachment inquiry, and other Trump foes with epithets that echo the tone and words of the president, calling Schiff a “liar and a leaker” and the process a “kangaroo court,” “a coup attempt” and a “sham.”
Zeldin said he feels on solid ground in his district as he casts his lot with Trump, with House Democrats moving toward adopting an article of impeachment and a trial in a Senate controlled by Republicans.
“We're getting a lot more people reaching out to us with opposition to the impeachment inquiry than in favor of it,” he said.
That’s because his home turf is unlike the typical suburban swing district, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies. It has rural elements, lower income and educational levels, and weaker benefits from the economic boom, like much of Trump country in the interior, he said.
The question for Zeldin is whether Trump backers rally in the 2020 election or if energetic Democrats who fervently oppose the president overwhelm them.
“It’s really too far out to tell,” Levy said. “We don’t know the damage to Trump the impeachment process may do.”
After a recent deposition, Zeldin explained his role as he walked through the Capitol’s underground tunnels to the House office building where he works and sleeps.
He said he has a perch in the inquiry as the top Republican on a subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is conducting it with the Intelligence and Oversight committees.
When the inquiry meets, he said, he spends most of the day in the SCIF, or secure room, in the basement at the bottom of three flights of stairs, where Democrats and Republicans face each other across tables that form a rectangle. The witnesses and their counsels sit at the head of the table.
Attendance by the more than 100 committee members, and associated tension, varies, Zeldin said. “There is some back-and-forth nearly every deposition, but whatever that issue is usually resolves itself quickly,” he said.
Lawyers dominate the first two hours, but lawmakers join in as the sides alternate in questioning the witness in the ensuing 45-minute rounds. Zeldin said he’s asked 25 minutes of questions in some rounds and two minutes in others.
But Zeldin criticized the secrecy of the closed sessions, and said the hearings should be public or, at least, the transcripts should be released quickly. Schiff says public hearings could come next month.
Like other Republicans, Zeldin also called the inquiry illegitimate because the full House did not vote to open it. Schiff said neither the Constitution nor House rules require that vote.
And Zeldin sympathized with unincluded GOP lawmakers crashing the secure room last week. He said he and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) met with Schiff in another room to “try to talk through the situation and these members’ frustrations right after it started.”
Though barred by the inquiry’s rules from talking about testimony, Zeldin said he talks to his Republican colleagues as a group and singly to "share my thoughts and answer questions.”
Zeldin backs Attorney General William Barr’s probe into the origin of Mueller’s investigation. Zeldin calls it an attempt by high-level Justice and FBI officials to “weaponize” their powers as “tools” of their “biases” and “political beliefs” to take down Trump.
Zeldin also has a personal tie to Trump that goes back to before he ran for president.
His father, David Zeldin, a New York Military Academy alumnus like Trump, introduced them. And Trump recorded robocalls for Zeldin’s successful 2014 congressional race and called to congratulate him. Zeldin also met socially with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2015.
Asked if he’s also been in touch with the White House, he said, “I have,” but then shifted to another topic.
Zeldin later said he remains in touch with Trump. “It’s not a routine of regular contact,” he said. “There could be a month where we talk and see each other a lot … and a month could go by where we may not see each other at all.”
He savors the ability to weigh in on issues with the president. “The bulk of our interaction has been on foreign policy,” said Zeldin, who as one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress has been closely aligned with Trump's positions on Israel and Iran.
Zeldin has broken with Trump, most recently on the removal of U.S. troops from Syria, a concern he said he was able to share with the president.
But Zeldin also showed that he knows there are limits.
Standing in the underground hallway with his next appointment waiting nearby, Zeldin was asked again if Trump’s use of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in Ukraine was appropriate.
“I’m not going to tell the president who to make his personal attorney,” he said. Pressed on that point, Zeldin responded, “There's more to that story as far as Rudy Giuliani's role in this.”